Authoritarian Tech

As internet blackouts hit India, business and tech wrestle with the fallout

Businesses and informal economies have all been hard hit by India’s latest internet shutdowns.

As protests about a new citizenship bill spread throughout India last week, tens of millions of people were plunged into cyber-darkness as the government enforced internet blackouts in dozens of cities and districts across the country.

The Indian government cut internet service in a bid to crack down on protests against a new citizenship law seen as discriminatory towards Muslims. Outages have been reported all over India, including in parts of New Delhi and as many as 18 cities in the state of Uttar Pradesh. 

While India’s main tech center, Bangalore, has not been impacted by the blackouts, other regional cities have been hard hit by the outages.

Abhijeet Mukherjee, 35, CEO of a tech media company called Guiding Tech, is from Ghaziabad, a city near New Delhi, which experienced more than 24 hours without internet on Friday and Saturday. On Friday morning, Mukherjee was woken at 4am by his young daughter’s cries. 

After Mukherjee settled her back to sleep, his wife checked her phone. She was greeted by a message: “Dear Customer, as per the government instructions, internet services have temporarily been stopped in your area.” 

“My entire work is on the internet,” said Mukherjee, whose company has millions of online followers. 

Mukherjee was shocked by how many major cities have been affected by the blackouts.  “The government can just block the internet without thinking about the consequences for millions,” Mukherjee said. “Imagine the plight of so many people who are dependent on the internet for their livelihoods: be it the Uber driver; the delivery man,” he said. “It’s not just the highly privileged folks like me but also the daily wage earners that are getting affected.” 

“Getting cut off affects practically every aspect of people’s lives,” said Rohini Lakshané, Director of emerging research at the Bachchao Project, a collective that works to improve women’s rights through technology. “Everybody’s WhatsApp, everybody’s on Facebook, and these are also used as informal methods of doing business,” she said. 

“These days the government just reacts to any kind of dissent by turning off the internet. Any kind of protest or demonstration and they shut off the internet,” said Delhi-based constitutional lawyer Gautam Bhatia. “They justify it by saying law and order is threatened.”

The city of Agra, home to India’s Taj Mahal, has also been subjected to internet blackouts.

Even before the latest shutdowns, disconnecting the internet in India has been a knee jerk reaction of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Since Modi came to power in 2014, the internet has been cut off over 350 times, according to Software Freedom Law Center. India is currently the internet shutdown capital of the world: it has enforced more shutdowns than every other country put together.

As Indian-controlled Kashmir enters its 140th day without internet, Kashmiri journalist Muhammad Tasim Zahid watched from Mumbai as city after city in India experienced blackouts. 

On Thursday, parts of New Delhi went offline for several hours. “It drove people crazy,’ said Zahid. ‘They were not able to tweet, not able to co-ordinate – and suddenly they realized that Kashmiris have not been able to do this for 140 days.”

Both Vodafone and Airtel’s mobile internet services were down for four hours. Neither carrier has yet issued a public statement about the outages. 

The outage in New Delhi was a rarity: until then, the government had not inflicted comprehensive blackouts on any of India’s ten major “metro” cities. The economic effects, Lakshané said, would be dramatic: “The government and trading centers would not be able to function,” she said. “Which is why they only use the tactic mostly in far-flung areas or smaller cities where the losses are less apparent.” 

The effects, however, are still significant: “People lose business, people lose revenue, financial transactions cannot be done, people cannot withdraw money from ATMs, they cannot swipe credit cards or debit cards,” Lakshané explained, describing how certain areas were experiencing a “cash crunch” as a result, with people having to stand in line at banks to withdraw money.

Makepeace Sitlhou, a journalist in the northeastern state of Assam, experienced prolonged blackouts as protests intensified in the city of Guwahati last week. First, mobile network services were cut off, swiftly followed by WiFi. 

Silthou described how her colleagues rented hotel rooms for hours at a time to use their government-sanctioned internet services to file stories, or “mooched” off spotty government-run WiFi through the walls of their neighbors’ house. “It took us back to dial-up days, you know – it was a good throwback for us. That’s how we intermittently worked.”

The Indian government authorizes these shutdowns under a colonial-era legal framework called the Telegraph Act, which allows those in power to control and monitor all forms of communication. The act first came into force in 1885 and has since been amended as technology developed.

Indian citizens are already looking at ways to resist the shutdowns. “People are installing peer-to-peer messaging apps, they’re trying to install FireWire,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now and co-founder of India’s Internet Freedom Foundation

People are looking to “mesh” internet networks on their phones and apps, meaning they no longer have to rely on mobile carriers. Another popular tactic is to use an app called Bridgefy which hops messages through phones using Bluetooth. 

The latest shutdowns in India have also caught the attention of other world powers. On Tuesday, Chinese state-run media outlet the People’s Daily commented that the Indian government’s shutdown was important for safeguarding national security. “The necessary regulation of the internet” should become “standard practice for sovereign countries,” the article read. 

The increasing use of shutdowns is a source of concern to internet freedom advocates. “It violates the right to free speech and expression,” said Gautam Bhatia, the lawyer in Delhi. “At a very basic and fundamental level, you can’t speak without the internet.”

Isobel Cockerell

Isobel Cockerell is a reporter and filmmaker with Coda Story. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she has also reported for WIRED, USA Today, Rappler, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post and others.

Get in touch via [email protected] Follow @isocockerell

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